An Oral History of the First Cyberfeminists
VNS Matrix emerged from the cyberswamp during one Australian summer in 1991, on a mission to hijack the toys from technocowboys and remap cyberculture with a feminist bent.
Image via Virginia Barratt.
In the heady early years of the World Wide Web, four Australian women— Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini and Virginia Barratt—made fierce and funny feminist art under the name VNS Matrix. They were part of a cultural movement called Cyberfeminism, which peaked in the early 1990s and dissipated sometime between the bursting of the dot com bubble and the coming of Y2K.
VNS Matrix worked in a wide variety of media: computer games, video installations, events, texts, and billboards. In their iconic "Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century," they called themselves the "virus of the new world disorder," and "terminators of the moral codes." With this irreverent, but keenly political language, they articulated a feminist aesthetic of slimy, unpretty, vigilantly nose-thumbing technological anarchy.
They coded. They built websites. They hung out in chat rooms and text-based online communities like LambdaMOO. They told stories through interactive code and experiences like the CD-ROM game All New Gen, in which a female protagonist fought to defeat a military-industrial data environment called "Big Daddy Mainframe." They believed the web could be a space for fluid creative experimentation, a place to transform and create in collaboration with a global community of like-minded artists.
Over twenty years later, in the many feminist conversations happening online, groups like VNS Matrix and their compatriots in the Cyberfeminist trenches are not frequently cited. They should be. Their spirit of joyful subversion is more relevant, more cannily timely, more totally necessary today than it has ever been.
While putting together my story for Motherboard about Cyberfeminism, I began an email correspondence with the members of VNS Matrix. They were hugely generous, opening up their archives and sharing first-person stories about their experiences as pioneering woman artists in the early Internet age. We decided to put all of the material together into a history of VNS Matrix, told in their own words.
Together, we share this history with the Cyberfeminists past, present, and future.
Virginia Barratt: There is a narrative arc to the genesis of VNS Matrix which goes something like this: "The VNS Matrix emerged from the cyberswamp during a southern Australian summer circa 1991, on a mission to hijack the toys from technocowboys and remap cyberculture with a feminist bent."
Francesca da Rimini: Our group formed over 20 years ago, and it really was another world, another lifetime.
Virginia Barratt: We were living in Adelaide at the time. I was EO of the Australian Network for Art and Technology, a position Francesca had just left to move onto other works and projects. Julianne and Josie were both studying and making art and performance. We were all involved in a mess of generative creative production.
Josephine Starrs: Australia was avant-garde in the new media art scene, and Australians are generally early adopters of new technologies, perhaps due to physical distance. Australian female artists are also innovators and are not afraid to critique the establishment. That irreverence and humour could perhaps be the influence of our Indigenous culture, and the Irish convict culture?
Virginia Barratt: Francesca had been involved in a project of Australian Network for Art and Technology to connect artists with machines, facilitating artist access to institutions and their resources, specifically computers and software.
This kind of access was unprecedented, since computers were not personal and certainly not ubiquitous. It was the mission of ANAT to create connections between art and science. The outcomes were surprising and not-so-surprising, in terms of production—artists intervening in the processes of technological production—and socio-cultural interventions, as the machines were mostly in service to the patriarchal overlords of commerce, science, educational institutions. Access by women was limited and usually mediated by a male "tech." The idea of "play" and "creative production" or simply "research" with no outcomes that were necessarily useful in terms of capitalism were anathema to the tech industries.
Josephine Starrs: VNS Matrix predated the 2000's trend for game-art in the art world. We began by making up playful narratives around our female protagonist All New Gen and her DNA sluts. This was 1990, way before Lara Croft, when the idea of a female hero in a computer game was unheard of. We created art installations that included game stills for light boxes, narrative sound and video works, and interactive art.
Virginia Barratt: The technological landscape was very dry, cartesian, reverent. It was uncritical and overwhelmingly male-dominated. It was a masculinist space, coded as such, and the gatekeepers of the code (cultural and logos) maintained control of the productions of technology.
Francesca da Rimini: In the early 1990s, informational capitalism hadn't quite taken root. The internet was far less regulated, far less commodified. More of a maul and a maw than a mall. There seemed to be endless possibilities, it was a field of immanence, of becoming. And it was slow, low-res, glitch. Before 'glitch' became a cultural movement. But it's easy to be nostalgic for that time.
Virginia Barratt: It was into this environment that VNS Matrix was spawned. We entered into the cultural space circuitously, imagining a feminist approach to the production of pornography—this was our starting point, and the way we generated an aesthetics of slime, moving quickly into a machine-slime symbiosis, as antithetical to the brittle beige fleshless gutless realm of technological production. A stream of consciousness writing session which was more like an exudation of slime and viscera morphing through critical, feminist, pornographic texts birthed the "Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century."
By the latter part of 1991 the manifesto was the centerpiece of a large billboard image of the same name, framed by cybercunts, in a field of genetic material morphing into new representations of women, gender and sexuality in technospace, both primordial, ancient and futuristic, fantastical and active, not passive objects. The blasphemous text was badass and complex, hot, wet and mind-bending, in service to a feminism that was multiple.
Virginia Barratt: At the same time that we portmanteau'ed cyber and feminism, Sadie Plant was working on developing a curriculum around the same name in another part of the world—simultaneous synapse firings across the matrix of slime. One of her students was on holiday in Australia and happened across the billboard, on the side of the Tin Sheds Gallery in Sydney, took a photo, framed it and presented it to Sadie. A connection was forged, flesh met. This is one understanding of how feminism entered cyber and the word became flesh.
Francesca da Rimini: The cyberfeminist community was crazy, wild, political, passionate. Deeply fun. It was lived politics and generated abiding friendships and networks. There was a whole lotta love. I guess it was very Euro, but then there were some powerful women in Canada and The States. Like Jamaican-Canadian digital artist Camille Turner. And Carmin Karasic from the Electronic Disturbance Theatre.
EDT did one of the first Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) actions—Floodnet—circa 1998, way before Anonymous, in solidarity with the Mexican Zapatistas. Their action provoked the US military into retaliating against the DDoS participants by launching hostile Java applets back to their computers, crashing them. I know, I was online in New York participating in the DDoS at the time. The military's involvement only came to light later.
Virginia Barratt: We honored the lineage of Cyberfeminism—naturally Donna Haraway with her cyborg/goddess dichotomy was one of our sheroes. Others who were working in the field at the time were people like Brenda Laurel, Sherri Turkle, Allucquere Roseanne Stone.
Irreverence, agency, power, sexuality, intensities, guerilla feminism, porn, humour, music. Post-punk/still punk. The abject and subversion of the clean and proper body. These were some of the hallmarks of our productive approaches, influences and methods.
Josephine Starrs: It appeared that few women were playing computer games in the early nineties. One reason for this is that the games industry ignored women and girls for more than a decade, fearing that if girls joined the fun, the boys would be unhappy about losing their exclusive boy-zone.
So VNS Matrix had fun making our own art games for public exhibition, hacking the game engines, slashing the dominant game narratives and critiquing the content of game culture with humor.
From the enormous positive responses and feedback we received from young women artists and gamers from both in Australia and internationally, it was obvious that many women were really annoyed with being actively excluded from game culture, which was obviously becoming a huge cultural force.
Virginia Barratt: What happened to cyberfeminism? Why did the movement die out? What happened, of course, was that the narratives around liberation from racism, sexism and so on in the brave new virtual world were promises which were empty. New strategies needed to be developed for battling rampant bullying, bigotry, hatespeech and so on. Cyberfeminisms deployed multifariously and the idea of a *movement* was no longer relevant.
Francesca da Rimini: I think the political and cultural ideas that this movement inspired continue to evolve and shapeshift. Check out the Bloodbath collaboration with a roller derby team for example. That could be read as a cyberfeminist intervention. Chicks, machines, extreme sports. Or the growth of female hacker clubs, workshops and events like G.hack and Genderchangers. In the global South there are many projects fostering a critical socially-engaged technological literacy, and women are driving and participating in many of these. Such projects don't need to be labelled "cyberfeminist," but they embody some of the cyberfeminist ethos and attitude.
Virginia Barratt: I think VNS Matrix was doing a job. And in a cultural space that was coded as heavily masculinist, our job as female-identified people, and as feminists, was to overthrow the gatekeepers in order to access a powerful new technology which had huge implications for domination and control by the patriarchy and by capitalist systems. We did what we had to do at the time. Then our job was done. Leave the definitions to someone else.
Later, the field became itself more fully, and was able to address the layered political aspects of the cultural conditions of the information technology field—but at the time we just needed to be fast and fierce and overthrow the gatekeepers. We had to break the safe.
Francesca da Rimini: Cyberfeminism is one of many feminisms, and feminism has not gone away.
This story is part of a series on rediscovering feminist histories on the web. Read part one, "We Are the Future Cunt: Cyberfeminism in the 90s."